Mstation Book Reviews
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Fri, 30 Jun 2006

Japanese for Travellers

Katie Kitamura, Japanese for Travellers,
Hamish Hamilton/Penguin

You might think the title indicates a Japanese language tutorial of the sort that introduces you to a few basic words that get you around and fed. Konnichiwa! ... that sort of thing.

In fact it's a view of changes in Japanese culture that have resulted first from WWII and then the bursting of the economic bubble in the recent past. The most recent past has seen more prosperous times but that is not talked about. So, this is far from a lofty Heiean view of rural tranquility and poetic moments. Ah, reality, you say, that's what it's about, and it is about a slice of reality as seen by a Japanese American who has family ties in Japan and visits reasonably frequently.

The truth, of course, isn't just social disconnectedness caused by the end of jobs-for-life or lessened wealth, and which has caused disturbing behaviour in different sections of society. It isn't just saran gas in the subway, the disappeared elderly, or deserted Dutch-themed folies. It is all the other things as well: the rich cultural and artistic heritage, the everyday politeness (and phoey to those that say manners are just fake -- they are a mark of repect for fellow humans), and the collision of beauty and ugliness that sums up somewhere like Tokyo.

If you want to know about Japan, this is one part of the story and is useful because we in the West don't know that much about these aspects. You can cover the other part by reading something like Lost Japan by Alex Kerr.

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